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Managing enterprise data storage more efficiently, Part 3: Reduce operating expenses using technolog

Enterprise data storage managers can reduce expenses through capacity planning, writing scripts to automate storage, outsourcing and taking a long-term view on efficiency.

While capital purchases are clearly the most sensitive area for organizations with slashed IT budgets, operating expenses are also under pressure. Data centers face serious staffing shortages, and administrators say they're being asked to bridge the gap between capital budget cuts and the need to improve services by working harder and smarter rather than with new software or hardware. To accomplish this, enterprise data storage managers are using capacity planning, writing scripts to automate storage, outsourcing and taking a long-term view on efficiency.

Chris Cummings, senior director, data protection solutions at NetApp, said he's seen this pattern of behavior. "At the beginning of [2008], the thing on everyone's mind was power and cooling with oil nearing $200 a barrel," he said. "After September, those conversations tapered off – operational expenses were still important, but acquisition costs became paramount."

Use capacity planning to manage storage

With the do-more-with-less attitude prevalent, it's no wonder capacity planning jumped to the top of TheInfoPro Inc.'s Wave 12 Storage Study Heat Index last April. The New York City-based market research firm's Heat Index measures the technologies people intend to implement. Capacity planning was 10th on the previous list and languished for years in the "nice to have" category among storage buyers.

Ed Sitz, IT manager at Med James Inc., a Shawnee Mission, Kans.-based management company, said he's quickly running out of space on his 15 TB EMC Corp. Clariion CX3-20 disk array. He can add expansion shelves, but at significant cost.

That's delaying Sitz's plans of adding Microsoft SQL and Exchange servers to the 20 or so servers he already virtualizes with VMware. Most of the hosts are attached to the storage-area network (SAN) through iSCSI, but SQL performance requirements demand more expensive Fibre Channel (FC) attachment.

"Funding for Fibre Channel is a whole other issue," Sitz said. "We have storage capacity on there for adding a LUN [logical unit number] if needed, but putting virtualized SQL and Exchange on the same RAID group as other servers isn't something we want to approach right now."

In the meantime, Sitz said he plans to work with his EMC solution provider to analyze how the storage space is currently being used and how it can be better utilized. "It seems we're always trying to learn while implementing," Sitz said. "We really haven't stopped and analyzed the apps on particular RAID groups and how the LUNs are laid out. Are they managed efficiently? If not, is there a way to move them?"

It's like cleaning out your garage – you have to look for stuff you don't need and throw it out. No automated tool can make that judgment call.

Andrew Reichman
Senior analystForrester Research

Automate storage with scripts

Enterprise data storage managers often search for ways to automate tasks. In these times, storage automation often means writing scripts to avoid having to buy tools that could make life easier.

Guy Gaylord is IT manager in the Atlanta branch office of TTI Telecom, which is headquartered in Israel. Gaylord said he's conducting internal meetings with end users to see if service levels meet their expectations.

"The user of an application knows what needs to be done," he said. "We're paying attention to the end-users' requirements to see what we can do better."

A lot of those improvements "could be made better by automating more, but I don't mean acquiring new tools," Gaylord said. "I mean just sitting down and writing scripts."

Scripting has also come in handy for Joe Tailleur, IT manager at James Western Star Sterling Ltd., a truck dealer in British Columbia, Canada. Tailleur oversees a centralized IT environment for three sites with approximately 1 TB of data spread over three physical servers running VMware.

Tailleur said even most small- and medium-sized business (SMB) products from mainstream storage vendors are outside his price range. "Their version of SMB isn't our version," he said.

James Western Star Sterling has instead leaned on Tailleur's expertise in scripting and designing software applications to do work in-house that it would otherwise have to pay for. The company uses the free version of VMware and Tailleur scripts backup operations using open-source code. "We run batch files, shut down the virtual machine, copy it to a backup Windows server and from there dump it to tape," he said.

Adam Vogini, information services administrator at Canonsburg, Pa.-based Trigon Holding Inc., a holding company with subsidiaries in aerospace and medical manufacturing, also found himself taking on labor-intensive open-source storage projects to make ends meet while expanding storage.

Trigon cut costs by deploying network-attached storage (NAS) servers based on an open-source distribution called Openfiler rather than buying NAS from its primary storage vendor, EMC. "It saved us between $15,000 and $20,000" over the purchase of a Celerra NX4 low-end NAS system, Vogini said.

The project was undertaken with a bare-bones staff. Vogini said a plan to hire a full-time engineer was postponed last year when the economy went sour. "That got pushed down to a summer intern, and that was based on a grant available to companies in IT and engineering that hire interns in the Pittsburgh area," he added.

Outsourcing to the cloud

Jon Krouskoff, director of instructional technology at Clarkstown Central School District in Rockland County, NY, uses cloud data storage service School Web Lockers to facilitate communication between teachers and students while keeping costs down.

Allowing students to use webmail and portable devices to transport data across the school's firewall would present a security risk, and the school lacked the infrastructure to offer online access to data inside and outside the school building.

The School Web Lockers service lets teachers store files and assignments online for students, and distribute files to the right students. "You can say 'I want what I just uploaded to also go to these three class periods,'" Krouskoff said.

The cost savings brings tradeoffs, mainly bandwidth issues. "Because it's browser based, the file size is technically unlimited, but most browsers time out after 30 to 40 seconds," he said. "You can get away with it when you know the network is relatively quiet, but if it's busy, it might time out before the file is stored or retrieved."

Krouskoff said he doesn't feel he's had much choice but to focus on cost-effectiveness. "Even a rollover of the budget keeping the status quo would have been an 8% to 9% increase from year to year," he said. "We've had to make significant cuts to programs like notebook and netbook acquisition projects. We also haven't issued a technology bond this year because of the economy. At a dollar a student, we look at School Web Lockers as an essential component of what we do."

Improve storage efficiency for long-term change

Trigon Holding's Vogini said the current downturn shows IT has become more critical than the last time the economy cratered. "IT definitely hasn't been hurt like it was in 2002," he said. "A lot of my peers are actually implementing more projects and keeping more up to date on systems to produce cost savings. Without an efficient, well-run IT department, companies can be stuck in 1998 – they're the ones that are getting hurt most."

Tailleur at James Western Star Sterling said he's trying to use the downturn as a way to regroup and prepare for the next upswing. "I actually think it has been a positive thing," he said. "It gives me time to investigate different solutions and gives me a base to work from. It's nice to be able to catch a breath and say 'What's coming?'"

Andrew Reichman, senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, said budget cuts give IT organizations a reason to focus on efficiency instead of the latest and greatest technology. "There isn't just a technical fix," he said. "It's like cleaning out your garage – you have to look for stuff you don't need and throw it out. No automated tool can make that judgment call.

"If the pressure's back off in six months and people are going back to [focusing on] uptime and performance rather than the efficiency, who knows if this downturn will really have an impact," Reichman continued. "Only if people really think about this long enough, will we see real significant long-term change."

For more on managing enterprise data storage more efficiently, please read Part 1 and Part 2 of this three-part series.

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